Posts Tagged ‘Oleg’

British Shell Companies and the Attacks on Liberal Journalism in the Ukraine

January 16, 2014

ukraine

Private Eye has long been extremely critical of the shell companies and the British tax legislation and accountancy firms that support them. These are companies that largely exist in name only, which are used as an accountancy trick to allow corporations to avoid paying tax in Britain by falsely claiming that they are resident, or owned by companies in foreign tax havens. It dates back to Blair and New Labour, but as with everything corrupt that benefits big business, it’s been taken over by the Coalition. Now, according to the Eye’s Christmas edition, these companies have been used for something even more pernicious and sinister: the attack on liberal journalism itself on the Ukraine. The Eye’s article ‘Tricking Kiev’ reports how a network of shell companies was used by the American-Ukrainian businessman, Alexander Altman, to wrest control of Ukrainian news agency, TVi, from its rightful owner, Konstantin Kagalovsky, a Russian businessman based in Britain.

The Eye says:

‘The battle in the Ukraine between pro-European reformers and the friends of Russia’s Vladimir Putin is partly a fight for control of the media.

Luckily for the oligarchs, they can rely on the acquiescence of TVi. Once a source of investigative journalism, it is now a feeble wreck thanks to a massive fraud perpetrated with the help of Britain’s lax corporate regulations.

As Eye 1344 reported, American-Ukrainian “businessman” Alexander Altman walked into TVi in April, and astonished its journalists by saying that he was now their boss. He locked out its owner, the British-based-based Russian businessman Konstantin Kagalovsky, and ordered reporters to stop causing trouble on pain of dismissal.

In a withering judgment at the High Court in London last week, Mr Justice Turner said there had been a “coup” at TVi, accomplished by “using forged documents comprising fake powers of attorney, board resolutions and board minutes”.

TVi’s baffled owner found that control had passed to a British firm called Balmore he had never heard of. No one could blame him for his ignorance. Balmore was an off-the-shelf firm, which Mr Justice Turner said “was in the precarious position of having beern served with a notice that it was to be struck off the company register for failing to submit an annual return”.

On the day Altman moved against liberal journalists in Kiev, Balmore’s annual return was prepared and filed electronically to Companies House in Britain.

The rightful owners’ lawyers secured an injunction in the summer saying that Altman must disclose information on how TVi had gone from Balmore into a maze of British shell companies. Robert Dougans, Kagolovsky’s solicitor, said Altman had refused to comply and was thus guilty of contempt of court. Even Altman’s London lawyers, Kerman & Co appeared to suspect that something unprofessional and unethical may have been going down. Internal emails, revealed to the court, show Sebastian Devlin, an associate lawyer at the firm, warning partner Carl Robinson that he saw a “real risk” in complying with Altman’s wishes. As the judge drily noted, Robinson was “unable to proffer any clear Explanation” on what Altman had asked Turner that had so worried his colleague.

Throughout the contempt case, Altman said he was the victim of a “set up”. He got out of bed one morning and found that he was associated with mysterious British companies. The judge was having none of it. If Altman were an innocent victim, “he would have made far more strenuous efforts to find out what had happened”. He “knew full well “why the companies had been formed. He was their “controlling mind”, who had retained Kerman & Co and handed them boxes of corporate documents.

The judge found Altman guilty of contempt, and will sentence him next year.

Robert Dougan, the victorious solicitor, told the Eye that despite the judgement there was still no guarantee that the Ukrainian courts would hand TVi back. “One of the reasons why people are on the streets in Kiev is because shady operators in and out of government can commit frauds and no one does anything about it.” As in so many other frauds, the fraudsters turn to “light touch” Britain for help. Dougans explained how he had found out for himself how light that touch was. “I decided to test our controls by registering my cat as a company director,” he said. “No one tried to stop me.”

(Private Eye, 21 December – 9 January 2014, p. 33).

This is a serious attack on the nascent free press in the new, post-Soviet state. The Ukraine is one of the oldest of the Russian states. As the kingdom of Kiev, tt was founded in the early Middle Ages by Varangian Vikings, who intermarried with and adopted the culture of the indigenous Slav population. Under its king, Oleg, in the 9th century it established relations with the Byzantine Empire. Oleg marched to Constantinople at the head of an army and after sacking its suburbs and nailed his shield to the city’s wall. As well as extracting tribute, he also demanded a number of agreements establishing trade between the Empire and Kievan Russia. The Byzantine Emperor acceded to his demands, and Oleg married a Byzantine princess. Later in the century, sometime after 988, the Kievan king, Vladimir the Great, converted to Christianity. This marked the beginning of the Orthodox Church in Russia, as well as the beginning of the Russian view that they are the ‘Third Rome’, after the Eternal City itself, and Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine or eastern Roman Empire.

The country takes its name from the Ukrainian word ‘Krai’, which means a border area. During the Middle Ages it was part of the Republic of Poland, before being conquered and incorporated into Russia. The Ukraine has produced some of the greatest Russian authors, including Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of the White Guard and the Master and Margarita.

One of my father’s workmates was Ukrainian, who finally moved back his native country to be with his family after the fall of Communism. One of my friends has also lived and worked in the former Eastern Bloc. A few years ago he holidayed in Kiev, and really loved the place. When he came back he proudly showed me the various sights he’d seen. Back in the 1990s there was some pessimism about the new, post-Soviet nation’s future. There has been considerable friction between the western Ukraine, which is largely rural and Roman Catholic, and the industrialised, Orthodox east, which has a large Russian population. Some observers and commenters feared that the country would degenerate into ethnic conflict and possible civil war, along with the emergence of anti-Semitism. While the country is clearly divided over the question of its ties to either the EU or Putin’s Russia, large scale conflict has been avoided. Indeed, the Financial Times was so impressed with the new state that in an article about it, the newspaper described it as almost a magical place, straight from a fairy-tale. The question of whether the country has closer ties to Russia or the EU is, of course, an issue for the Ukrainians themselves to decide. To do so, and to strengthen their democracy, they need a genuinely liberal, free press able investigate corruption and dodgy political dealing. Unfortunately, the extremely lax corporate legislation over here has meant that this is being stifled to serve very powerful, corporate interests.

The use of this legislation to attack Ukrainian free journalism also poses a threat to the free press in the rest of the world, including this country. Globalisation has meant that the world is now interconnected, and once international big business feels it can get away with something in one country, it will try and use the same tactic elsewhere. We cannot afford to see this as merely a problem for a far away country, tucked away in the former USSR. If it is allowed to succeed in the Ukraine, then it will eventually come here.

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